Criterion’s Documentaries Are Powerful — None More So Than “The Times of Harvey Milk”
The Criterion Collection is a distribution company that specializes in “important” classic and contemporary films. Through Hulu, many of these films are made available to stream. Once a week, I like to illuminate a Criterion movie — to deepen one’s understanding of filmmaking and film history. This week’s movie: “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984)
Among the Criterion Collection’s treasure trove of foreign and classic films lie a wide range of documentaries.
From F For Fake — a film essay by Orson Welles “about” art forgery — to Night and Fog — a harrowing 30 minute documentary where filmmaker Alain Resnais returned to two Nazi concentration camps 10 years after the end of World War II — , the documentaries of Criterion consist of vastly different styles and techniques to tell their certain stories. From biographies to films about wars or events, each documentary can best be described as living, breathing history. The consistency Criterion’s documentaries share is the ability to provide incredible access and truth to each film’s subject matter.
In the early 1980s, director Rob Epstein and producer Richard Schmiechen decided to make a movie about a guy who still rang large in the American culture of the early 1980s, even though he had died in 1978. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person to be elected to a public office in the state of California. Milk’s position was a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — a legislative body for the city of San Francisco. Milk was in office for 11 months before being assassinated by Dan White — Milk’s peer on the Board.
The story of the rise of Harvey Milk is brilliantly shown in Epstein and Schmiechen’s film The Times of Harvey Milk — a must watch for those yearning to learn more about their country’s past.
The film opens with the end. On November 27, 1978, Dianne Feinstein, a Senator at the time, holds a press conference to announce that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot and died from their wounds. A man in the crowd shouts, “Oh my god!”, which is perfectly picked up by the microphones of the news crew filming Feinstein — who is at a lost for words after delivering the news. 30 seconds into the movie, goosebumps arise on your arms and a chill goes down your back. Not knowing who Moscone and Milk, you automatically realize the shock and horror of this event. Of course, anytime anyone is shot is a horrific event. But the way people are reacting in this opening clip connotes utter panic.
There is a power in this documentary when they effectively use news/archival footage. This footage offers a window to the specific time period being discussed. The voiceovers or interviews maneuvering our feelings one way or the other are few and far between when footage is used. The archival footage that is used throughout this film — like how it is used in The War Room — gives us access to Milk which opens/changes/solidifies history’s version of Milk and the others seen in this movie. This film does a tremendous job providing a narrative through all of the interesting and emotional archival footage.
The film mostly is about the rise of Harvey Milk and his struggle against the discrimination against the gay community in the 1960s and 1970s. It was fascinating to learn about how vocal he was on public issues concerning San Francisco and California, yet the man liked his privacy. He did not speak about his personal life, yet wanted justice for those, he believed, were being repressed from basic human rights. It was also fascinating to know that Milk did not become hugely active in the political field until his 40s. He was a late bloomer to the game of politics, but watching Milk transform throughout his life — wanting to do good for the people — is as fascinating as a documentary topic as any.
The filmmakers do a beautiful job at brining Harvey Milk to life, like I said, through archival footage. I felt like I got to personally know him, what he stood for and what he believed in. Aside from the footage, the filmmakers included interviews with people who knew Milk or lived through his rise and horrific death. The most interesting aspect of these interviews was the fact this movie was made very soon after his death. The interviews are emotional and — in a sense raw — their memories and thoughts still tied to the recent memory of Harvey Milk. They are still extremely impactful. The filmmakers do a masterful job at using the interviews effectively, not overpowering the film with talking heads.
I watched The Times of Harvey Milk in a documentary class in college. I honestly had no idea who Harvey Milk was before watching this film, but I was extremely affected by his story and the way it was presented in this documentary. (Yes, we did watch Milk starring Sean Penn, too. Solid, but nowhere near close as important as this documentary).
It came up on my Hulu streaming recommends, and I gave it another watch. It still was just as impactful as the first viewing. Harvey Milk’s story and lessons he passed down to future generations is extremely important to American history.
Oh yeah, it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1984.